30 Astonishing Facts About Death

iStock.com/AlexSava
iStock.com/AlexSava

Death is the start of a great adventure—never mind that you might not be around for it.

  1. You can be declared dead in some states but considered alive in others. That's because New York and New Jersey allow families to reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs.
  1. One of the first visible signs of death is when the eyes cloud over, as fluid and oxygen stop flowing to the corneas. That can happen within 10 minutes after death if the eyes were open (and 24 hours if the eyes were closed).
  1. Today, there are about 300 bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen in America in the hope that science will one day be able to bring them back to life. (Contrary to popular belief, Walt Disney is not one of them.)
  1. It's a myth that hair and nails grow after death. What really happens is that the body dries out, so the nail beds and skin on the head retract, making nails, stubble, and hair appear longer.
  1. Rigor mortis is only temporary. It's a result of certain fibers in the muscle cells becoming linked by chemical bonds, but usually goes away in a day or two as those bonds break down. How long it lasts depends on the temperature in the environment, among other factors.

A corpse flower, or titan arum, known for smelling a lot like death
A corpse flower, or titan arum, known for smelling a lot like death.
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  1. Two of the gases responsible for the distinctive smell of death are called putrescine and cadaverine. They're produced when bacteria break down the amino acids ornithine and lysine, respectively.
  1. Bodies can become covered in what looks like soap after death. Technically known as adipocere (and sometimes also called grave wax), it's a byproduct of decomposition that happens as the fat in a body decays under wet, anaerobic (lacking in oxygen) conditions. Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum and Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian each have an adipocere-covered corpse on display.
  1. There are more than 200 corpses of failed climbers frozen on Mount Everest.
  1. The low-temperature, low-oxygen, highly acidic environmental conditions of European peat bogs can preserve bodies with remarkable detail for centuries, and even millennia. One of the most famous examples of these "bog bodies" is the Iron Age Tollund Man in Denmark. When his body was discovered in 1950, it looked so fresh his discoverers thought they'd found a recent murder victim.

A skull against a black background
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  1. Scientists are currently studying the "necrobiome"—all the bacteria and fungi in a corpse—to figure out whether changes in the microbes alone can provide clues to the time of death. The concept is known as the "microbial clock."
  1. People used to believe that the blood of the freshly executed was a health tonic, and would pay executioners a few coins to drink it warm from the gallows.
  1. "Hop the twig," "yield the crow a pudding," "snuff one's glim," and "climb the six-foot ladder," were all once slang terms for death.
  1. Dead bodies generally aren't dangerous just because they're dead. But in the 19th century, there was widespread belief in "miasmatic theory," which said that air coming from rotting corpses and other sources of decay lead to the spread of disease. This belief was more or less replaced by germ theory.

Feet on a morgue table with toe tag
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  1. Embalming is rarely required by law, except in certain situation where bodies leave state borders.
  1. The average human body produces between 3 and 9 pounds of cremated remains after being burned. The cremation chamber, known as a retort, can get as hot as 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.
  1. The Victorians often took photos of dead loved ones as part of their grieving process. These postmortem photographs became keepsakes that were displayed in homes, sent to friends and relatives, and worn inside lockets.
  1. In at least one version of telegraph code, LOL meant "loss of life."
  1. In 897, Pope Stephen VI had the corpse of a previous pope, Formosus, exhumed, perched on a throne, and questioned about his "crimes" (which were mostly about being on the wrong side of a political struggle.) The event is known as the Cadaver Synod.
  1. The term mortician was invented as part of a PR campaign by the funeral industry, which felt it was more customer-friendly than undertaker. The term was chosen after a call for ideas in Embalmer's Monthly.

A statue of Abraham Lincoln
A statue of Abraham Lincoln, whose embalming widely popularized the practice
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
  1. The embalming of Abraham Lincoln for the journey from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, is widely credited with encouraging everyday acceptance of the practice.
  1. You're more likely to be killed at a dance party than while skydiving.
  1. Between the 16th and the early 20th centuries, artists used ground-up mummies as paint pigment. (It was also thought to be a potent medicine.)
  1. The idea that graves need to be 6 feet deep comes from a 1665 plague outbreak in England, when the mayor of London decreed the burial depth to limit the spread of disease.
  1. No Mormon mourning is complete without Mormon funeral potatoes, a cheesy casserole that usually involves cornflakes. Other foods associated with death include pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"), traditionally eaten on Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico; ossa dei morti ("bones of the dead") cookies in Italy, meant to represent the bones of dead saints; and Victorian funeral biscuits.

Mormon funeral potatoes
Mormon funeral potatoes
GreenGlass1972, Wikimedia // Public Domain
  1. Contrary to popular reports, it's not illegal to die in Longyearbyen, Norway. But since the town has no nursing homes and only a small hospital, residents are required to move to the mainland once they become elderly. It is true that it's so cold there bodies barely decompose.
  1. "Human composting," in which bodies decompose into dirt in reusable "recomposition vessels," could soon be legal in Washington state. The results don't smell, and are suitable for use in the garden.
  1. The Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland, Colorado, is held each year in honor of a 110-year-old corpse located in a local Tuff Shed and surrounded by dry ice (it's a DIY cryonics set-up). The festival features coffin racing, frozen salmon tossing, costumed polar plunging, and frozen t-shirt contests.

Coffin racing at the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland, Colorado in 2019
Coffin racing at the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland, Colorado in 2019
JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images
  1. In the 19th century, several inventors came up with "safety coffins" equipped with bells, flags, and air tubes and designed to help people avoid being buried alive.
  1. Although the etiquette guides for Victorian mourning varied widely, widows mourned for a total of two-and-a-half years, while widowers mourned for three months.
  1. In the 17th century and beyond, human skulls were soaked in alcohol to create a tincture called “the King’s drops" that was said to be good for gout, dropsy (edema), and "all fevers putrid or pestilential," among other ailments. King Charles II of England allegedly paid £6000 for a personal recipe.

5 Facts About Charles Ponzi and the Original Ponzi Scheme

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Some of the most infamous scams in history have been Ponzi schemes, but before Bernie Madoff (or Bitcoin), there was Charles Ponzi himself. The con he built was so successful that his last name became synonymous with fraud. In January 2020, a century after he set up his fraudulent Securities Exchange Company, the phrase Ponzi scheme is still used to describe any scheme in which funds from new investors are used to pay back old investors. Here are some facts about Ponzi and his scheme that you should know.

1. Charles Ponzi arrived in the U.S. with $2.50 in his pocket.

Charles Ponzi was born in Lugo, Italy, in 1882. As a young adult, he worked as a postal worker and studied at the University of Roma La Sapienza. Neither path panned out for him, however. In 1903, when faced with dwindling funds, Ponzi boarded a ship for America in search of a better life. But Ponzi wasn't a master hustler at this point in his life; he arrived in Boston with $2.50 after gambling away the rest of his life savings on the ship.

2. Charles Ponzi spent time in prison before his famous scheme.

Ponzi was no stranger to crime before concocting the scheme that made his surname infamous. Not long after arriving in Boston, he moved to Canada and got in trouble for forging checks. He spent two years in a Canadian prison for his offenses. Back in the U.S., he served a term in federal prison for illegally transporting five Italians immigrants across the Canadian border. It was only after his so-called Ponzi scheme began to crumble that his criminal history was made public by journalists, thus speeding up his downfall.

3. Charles Ponzi got rich off the postal system.

In 1920, Ponzi discovered the key to the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme: an international postal reply coupon worth $.05. It had been included in a parcel he received from Spain as prepayment for his reply postage. Thanks to an international treaty, the voucher could be exchanged for one U.S. postage stamp worth a nickel, which Ponzi could then sell. Ponzi knew that the value of the Spanish peseta had recently fallen in relation to the dollar, which meant that the coupon was actually worth more than the 30 centavos used to purchase it in Spain. He took this concept to the extreme by recruiting people back home in Italy to buy postal reply coupons in bulk from countries with weak economies, so that he could redeem them in the U.S. for a profit.

4. Charles Ponzi swindled $20 million from investors.

Ponzi technically wasn’t breaking any laws with his postal service transactions, and if he had kept his idea to himself he would have gotten away with it. Instead, he turned his small money-making operation into a wide-reaching scam. If people invested money into his “business” of cashing in foreign postal vouchers, which he dubbed the Securities Exchange Company, they would get their money back plus 50 percent interest in 90 days. The deal was too good for many investors to pass up.

It was also too good to be true: The money wasn’t being used to buy coupons overseas. Ponzi kept most of the investments for himself and used the flood of money coming in from new investors to pay off the old ones. Many investors were so thrilled with their returns that they invested whatever money they had made back into the business, which helped Ponzi keep the sham afloat.

Ponzi was finally rich and famous, but soon enough, cracks in the scheme started to form. The Boston Post launched an investigation into Ponzi and revealed that in order for his business to be functional, he would need to be moving 160 million vouchers across world borders. There were only 27,000 postal reply coupons in circulation at the time. The final blow came when the publicist he had hired to represent him came out against him to the public. His system fell apart and it was revealed that he had stolen $20 million from investors.

Because he had lied to his clients about their investments through the mail, Ponzi was ultimately charged by the federal government for mail fraud. He served three-and-a-half years in prison and then served an additional nine years for state charges.

5. Charles Ponzi didn’t invent the Ponzi scheme.

Though Ponzi schemes were eventually named for him, Charles Ponzi didn’t invent this type of scam. There were many crooks before him who used the same method to exploit investors. Charles Dickens even wrote pre-Ponzi Ponzi schemes into his 1857 novel Little Doritt.

It’s possible that Ponzi got the idea for his own fraud from William F. Miller, who pulled a similar stunt working as a bookkeeper in Brooklyn in 1899. But it was the highs of Ponzi’s success—and the lows of his demise—that made his story so memorable.

14 Candid Photos of Martin Luther King Jr.

Getty Images
Getty Images

January 20, 2020 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the federal holiday that celebrates the life of the civil rights activist. The holiday—which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and has been observed annually since 1986—is held on the third Monday in January. (King was born on January 15.) Here's a look back at King in action.

Martin Luther King Jr. on the phone
Express Newspapers/Getty Images
  • American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sits on a couch and speaks on the telephone after encountering a white mob protesting against the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 26, 1961.


J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images
  • American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King arriving in London on October 1, 1961. He was in England to be the chief speaker at a public meeting about color prejudice and to appear on the BBC television program Face To Face.


Three Lions/Getty Images
  • American president John F. Kennedy at the White House on August 28, 1963 with leaders of the civil rights March on Washington (left to right): Dr. Martin Luther King, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, A. Philip Randolph, President Kennedy, Walter Reuther, and Roy Wilkins. Behind Reuther is Vice President Lyndon Johnson.


William H. Alden/Evening Standard/Getty Images
  • King raising his hands in a restaurant on September 21, 1963.


Evening Standard/Getty Images
  • Canon John Collins greeting King at London Airport on December 5, 1964.


Keystone/Getty Images
  • King receives the Nobel Prize for Peace from Gunnar Jahn, president of the Nobel Prize Committee, in Oslo, on December 10, 1964.


Hulton Archive/Getty Images
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with King in January 1965. The act, part of President Johnson's "Great Society" program, trebled the number of black voters in the south, who had previously been hindered by racially inspired laws.


William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images
  • King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead a civil rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in March 1965. On the left (holding bottle) is American diplomat Ralph Bunche.


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  • King addresses a crowd in front of the Capitol Building in Montgomery, Alabama, following a voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, in March 1965.


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  • King listening to a transistor radio in the front line of the third march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to campaign for proper registration of black voters, on March 23, 1965. Among the other marchers are: Ralph Abernathy (1926 - 1990, second from left), Ralph Bunche (1903 - 1971, third from right) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 - 1972, far right). The first march ended in violence when marchers were attacked by police. The second was aborted after a legal injunction was issued.


Keystone/Getty Images
  • King addresses civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, in April 1965.


Express Newspapers/Getty Images
  • King speaks to reporters during a march en route to Jackson, Mississippi, on June 11, 1966.


Getty Images
  • Watched by Dr. Charles Bousenquet, King signs the Degree Roll at Newcastle University after receiving an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree, Newcastle, England, on November 14, 1967.


John Goodwin/Getty Images
  • King speaks at a January 12, 1968 press conference for Clergy & Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, held at the Belmont Plaza Hotel, New York City. He announced the Poor People's March On Washington at this event.

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